BLOCKER POETRY

Hopefully these won't make you puke

Crows of Whittier Narrows

During a sunset one October
I was driving north on Rosemead
climbing the hill
out of Pico Rivera
into the park land
of Whittier Narrows,

and all the ravens
of the San Gabriel Valley
were landing in the brush,
settling in for the cooling,
lengthening night.

In the west fiery reds and orange,
to the north purple and blues,
tan and green in the raw land,
and millions of falling
fluttering specks of black birds.

I thought about
Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Hitchcock
and Pio Pico, while brakes flashed
and headlights beamed.

The young lady to my right
was already beautiful,
but she was applying lipstick anyway.
Some asshole on the radio
was bitching about illegal aliens.

Funneled onto asphalt paths
to obey lights and stay safely away
from each other, all the people drove
away from their bosses
under the watchful eyes of cops
toward expensive, artificially lit nests–
in a land where property is mortgaged
but little outright owned.

Mark Blocker

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PASADENA PROSE

The following prose items first appeared in the Facebook forum, “You Know You are From Old-School Pasadena When….”  These are brief stories about people and business that I remember fondly and that had an influence on who I am today. They are recycled here because I like them. I hope you do too.

RIDING TRIPLE ON A BICYCLE TO IN-N-OUT

One day back in the 9th grade in 73 when the 210 was still in construction, my friends Jim Hanson, Mark Jorgensen and I decided to ride triple on a bicycle down Craig Ave from Orange Grove to In-N-Out on Foothill. Hanson sat on the handle bars, Jorgensen stood and peddled, I rode on the seat. Hanson and I dangled our legs as Jorgensen worked the peddles–which wasn’t difficult since it was all down hill.
Things were going well until we hit the stretch underneath the half-built freeway bridge–and all the construction debris littering the road with a large trench off to the side. Unfortunately we were going at quite a clip by then. Hanson was doing a poor job of calling out potential hazards to Jorgensen who also had the added responsibility of steering.
We flew into the trench. Hanson and Jorgensen were both slender lads while I probably could’ve started for the varsity football team if I liked taking shit from asshole coaches. I landed on top of them and surfed them both like two Boogie Boards. They didn’t feel like eating hamburgers after that, but they sure did good impressions of ground-beef patties. I didn’t even get my clothes dirty. Years later I confessed to them that I did suffer from survivor’s guilt.

LET’S DO LUNCH AT MCKINLEY BACK IN ’72!

All these Pasadena school stories where hormone-drenched pioneers of desegregation matched wits with cross town counterparts brings to mind Ronny, whom I haven’t thought about in decades even though we spent most of our lunch breaks together as 8th-graders at McKinley Jr. High back in ’72. But we weren’t friends–or were we?

It started out on the asphalt one hot, smoggy noon when I was standing alone because all my friends went to Wilson. This black kid barged up, grabbed my collar and demanded, “What did you call me?” That was my introduction to the kid I later learned was named, Ronny.

Confused since I hadn’t said a damn thing to anyone all day, I responded in the only way I knew: I grabbed his collar and asked as menacingly as I could at 12, “What did you call me?”

Ronny seemed surprised. I could feel his adam’s apple rubbing against my knuckles as he swallowed. He furrowed his brows. I furrowed mine. A gaggle of hyenas surrounded us and urged us to fight. We paid no attention and continued our stare-down. Our audience got bored and left. Soon the bell rang, too.

The next day it began again. This time he grabbed my shirt and accused me of making disparaging remarks about his mama. I immediately reciprocated, and the stalemate unfolded until another black kid sauntered up and told me to let go of Ronny’s collar.

“He’s grabbing mine,” I protested.

“That’s ok,” he answered. “He can grab yours but you can’t grab his.”

Outnumbered, I let go of Ronny’s collar. Satisfied, the other kid walked off. I grabbed Ronny’s shirt again. Ronny looked sideways, but he was on his own again because apparently the other kid found something else upon which to focus attention.

This went on all God damned year. Never once did an adult staff member intervene. Hell, even the other kids got bored and ignored us.

My mom, noticing the condition of my shirts, eventually complained, “Can’t you unbutton your shirts before you take them off?”

Well, finally the academic year drew to a close. Summer passed. On the first day of 9th grade out on the other side of town at PHS–here comes Ronny.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I replied.

“You go here?”

“Yep. You go here too?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool.”

We awkwardly performed a three-stage hand shake and continued on our way. It must’ve been heart warming to see two old friends exchanging pleasantries at their new school.

CANTO ROBLEDO’S CROWN CITY STABLES 

CANTO ROBLEDO’S CROWN CITY STABLES turned out many heavyweights–and good fighters from all weight classes. I wasn’t one of them. No, sir, not by a long shot. But, that deceptively humble little garage with a ring, heavy bags, speed bags, jump ropes, spare gloves, lockers, a shower–and some very dedicated, generous trainers like Eddie Johnson–the place changed lives. It changed mine before my old man refused to let me go back anymore.

My life changed when, after a few training sessions, I got into the ring for my first sparring session. My opponent kind of looked like Richard Ramirez the “Night Stalker,” but he was a cool guy–for a dude who bloodied my nose after 30 seconds. Per Eddie’s instructions I covered and back peddled and threw plenty of jabs to keep my opponent safely away.

After what seemed like an hour, the two-minute round finally ended. Eddie cleaned my nose. Then he looked down and sternly asked, “Do you want to go back in?” I remember looking up at him. He looked like Morgan Freeman if Mr. Freeman had spent years nursing bad habits that will eventually take a toll on a man’s health.

“OK,” I said.

His face lit up and he grinned ear to ear, “Go get ’em Jerry,” he said making a reference to the white heavyweight Jerry Quarry. I don’t remember much about the next round, but I remember that I protected my nose.

I learned that day as a 10th grader I had some bravery in me. I learned getting hit was less painful than quitting. Unfortunately, back at home whenever I was watching boxing on TV the old man would always walk in right when some white guy was getting decked by a black. Pop would remark, “Anybody who’s dumb enough to get in the ring with a (black man) deserves whatever happens to him.” His hints finally turned into a mandate. “You’re not going over there anymore boy. You’re gonna end up looking like a cross-eyed potato.”


My dad is dead now, and I suppose Eddie has passed away, too. I never told either one that I loved them and that they–despite all their dissimilarities–had a profound impact on what I have become today. God bless Canto and the Robledos too. I only worked out there for about three months, but the lessons learned in that garage will last my entire life time.

LANITA’S ANTIQUES

Back in the early 70s LANITA’S ANTIQUES was on the west side of Allen Ave doors south of Washington Blvd. I don’t know what she sold out of her store, but I know Lanita Cardella was a ravishingly beautiful woman with flowing raven hair who lived with her equally gorgeous teenage daughter in a Mediterranean on the northeast corner of Allen & Woodlyn. I never saw Mr. Cardella, but if she was half as demanding to him as she was to me–her Star News paperboy–he probably said, “to hell with it.” and hitchhiked off to join the circus.
Four times a week she called up my boss, John Lawrence, to complain I forgot her paper. One day I rode down to the boss’s office at Allen & Casa Grande while he was out running a service error, folded up about 30 papers and went back up to Lanita’s and threw them all over her yard, her porch and the roof.
When I arrived back at the boss’s, he was finishing up a phone conversation. “That was Lanita,” he sighed.
“Yeah?” I snickered.
“She thinks you’re nuts.”
To make a long story short, I had to pick up all the papers under the watchful eye of John and the heat of Lanita’s glare while she stood on the front porch in a pink bathrobe, arms folded shaking her head. When I collected later that month she tipped me a buck.
I bet her antiques were rare and expensive.

THE SKOAL

Speaking of Washington & Lake, back in the early 80s every time I went into THE SKOAL, some sort of aggression/violence transpired. My first visit, I asked the bartender, Stormy, if he had some Drambuie.
“Hell yes, we have Drambuie. We’re a bar aren’t we?” Then he inquired, “What are you, some kind of an asshole?”
Didn’t get better after that. Me and the business manager of the old Altadena Chronicle decided to celebrate printing another edition by drinking a few beers down at the Skoal.
Halfway through our second draught, a huge silhouette at the front entry blotted out daylight. The bleach-blonde barmaid shrieked at the hugest Samoan I’d ever seen, “You better not do anything crazy!” We learned later she was in the middle of jilting his ass but he wanted her back.
Well, the first thing he busted up was the rack holding the pool ques. He took one and smashed up all the mirrors and ads adorning the wall. He tried to lift the pool table, but it was bolted to the floor. We audibly heard his back tear, but that didn’t stop him. Figuring we were moving up on the Samoan’s list of what to bust up, Jim and I got the hell out of there–fast.
One time months later, after I worked up the nerve to go back, tough Eddie Acosta, whose Abuelita ran Acosta’s Bakery around the corner, took umbrage at the attempt by a Woody Allen look-alike trying to hustle him at billiards. Eddie apparently had been well tutored in boxing at Canto Robledo’s Crown City Stables. It wasn’t pretty watching Eddie’s rendition of what a famous author once called “the sweet science.” I found it hard to believe the poor schmuck would dare to hustle Eddie, but I didn’t say anything.
My last night visiting the Skoal, my best friend’s girlfriend at the time, a hot head in her own right, chose off some other vixen inside. We got her out of there since we figured the crowd was going to side with her opponent.
Ah, the Skoal. We hardly even knew ye.

MISS HINCKLEY & HALE ELEMENTARY

Did anyone else in this forum go to George Ellery Hale Elementary in East Pasadena and have the privilege of Miss Hinckley as their 5th grade teacher? She was very strict, but now I remember her fondly. She once told my mother that I had an inflated view of my accomplishments. “He’s his own biggest fan,” she sniffed at a parent-teacher conference.

Even if you didn’t go to Hale you may remember her walking around the snooty areas of our beloved Crown City. Miss Hinckley looked like she was 65 (for a good two decades), and was a slender, diminutive woman with flaming red hair in a perm, walked like she had a 2X4 for a spine, kept her nose in the air and chin high, dressed to the 9s, carried a designer purse–all while strutting purposefully up or down South Lake, along California Blvd and those high-rent apartments, or strolling toward Hale along East Orange Grove after exiting the bus on Allen.

A former buddy looked her up a few years ago and said he found her in a retirement home. He called her but she hung up on him. I don’t blame her. I had to block the racist, neo-Nazi hatemonger here on Facebook. Sometimes it’s best not to reconnect with childhood friends, but that’s another story… VIVA MISS HINCKLEY!

AFTERWORD:

I had a Mrs. Armstrong at Hale in the first grade (64-65.) I remember she caught me drinking out of the “emergency drinking fountain” and grabbed me hard by the arm and muscled me into the room during recess. I never liked her after that. 

Hale’s principal at that time was J. Maria Pierce was hailed from a family instrumental in the founding of Pasadena. She lived alone in a huge estate on Los Robles Ave above Washington. Legend has it she was a widow. There’s also a legend as to how she became a widow–but since I’m not confident about the truth or my recollection of that part of the story I will not write it here.

In kindergarten in that bungalow down Paloma she yelled at me for sitting on one of those red playground 4-square balls. I answered that I was “laying an egg.” She started barking at me. Reminded me of the wicked witch in Wizard of Oz. Her, and the “emergency drinking fountain” incident with Armstrong sent me on a life-long path of thumbing my nose at authority figures. Except Hinckley. She never did anything I thought was rude.

The “emergency drinking fountain” was outside Room 1 at the far west end of the south corridor. We couldn’t drink out of it unless it was raining; otherwise, we had to use the ones out on the playground. Well, it was a hot day, I was already up in the corridor and she wasn’t around. So I shrugged, “Fuck it,” and helped myself to a slurp. The next thing I know, she’s grabbing my arm like Freddy Blase and muscling me inside. Say, maybe she didn’t like the F-word? jk

BILL’S CHICKEN

How many of you slurred, “Three buksa chiggin please?” at the counter of BILL’S CHICKEN at Mentor & Washington after the bars closed? They should erect a statue of ‘ol Bill right there on the corner. He and his staff must’ve taken a Berlitz class on how to understand drunks.

Friday Afternoon I Could Be Lulu’s Father

Sacramento politicians mandate 8th-graders
learn to understand plot: setting, conflict, resolution,
irony; and figurative language: hyperbole, simile
and symbolism . . .
I like to think of it as teaching children to tear down walls.

I planned my poetry unit: Frost, Poe, Dickinson, Shakespeare and Noyes;
linked it to State standards,
scripted lessons,
got approval from administrators,
then delivered it every day. Five times.
All week.

Friday after school
large, loud Alyssa
profanely shrieks,
“LIFE IS FUCKED!”

Leaning against the front gate while
supervising the campus Exodus,
I look up from a journeyman NBA player’s
obscene Tweet.
“Gonna have to write you up
for that, Lulu.”

A gust of cold wind shoves me out
of the shade and into the sunshine,
she follows, throwing her arms,
demanding, “WHAT? and it’s ALYSSA, not . . .”

I interrupt, “Can’t do it now, though.
So remind me first thing
Monday morning
when you get here
or else
I’ll forget
and nothing bad
will happen to you.
We don’t want that, do we?”

The fresh sea wind is too cold, but it blends
with warm, golden rays.
Makes me think about bourbon on ice.

But now Alyssa–blonde, strawberry and corn fed–is storming,
and she is strong from hollering across cauliflower fields
and raising 4H livestock that win blue ribbons at the county fair.

Between classes she plows the halls
harvesting attention. Now, after the final
bell she works hard to collect what
remains within this emptying day.

I pretend not to notice and gaze into my I-phone.
Alyssa burrows her face into my shirt of ukuleles,
palm trees, then she wails summoning all to enjoy.
Lulu heaves, sobs, blows her nose
on my cotton-print hula gal.

I look around for an administrator.
“Kid.
Alyssa.
Sweetheart.
Lulu.
You need to listen for clues.
I’m only joking.”

She lifts her face. No tears, just a grin
and the often hidden bands and wires
of braces harnessing her teeth that
used to buck like hind legs of white broncos.
Everything about Alyssa will some day be
restrained. I check my watch: 2:18.

Twelve more minutes, and I can get
inside my car and turn the key.
Looking toward heaven with thanks,
I see our flock of hungry-but-well-fed crows
impatient for the campus to clear. A few flashing wings
while pacing along the edge of the shit-splattered roof.
One rattles percussion.

For the 14th time today, Alyssa emphatically
observes that I am not her father
and therefore can not tell her what to do.
I respond by calling her “Lulu” and nodding
in a circular motion portraying
both agreement and dissent.
I focus on the conflict
or cooperation between solar rays and sea wind
washing my face under the watch
of the crow who clicks.

“Look, Alyssa!”
She turns east facing brown grass and hills.
She frowns. Shrugs.
But I was pointing toward her mother’s car arriving.
Alyssa’s mother is probably 15 years
younger than me. Mom, simply a mature
rendition of her daughter, smiles and waves.
I return the greeting. I should make the kid
climb into the back seat, then I’ll slide in
to ride shotgun and direct us to
the pizza place a block up
from the Pismo Beach Pier. Instead,

Alyssa closes the door.
Through the window
I see them both talking
over the radio.

Out here the wind quickly flushes
exhaust; silence fulminates.
The crow resumes that rattling.

Meanwhile, and for the past thousands of years, the hills
20 miles inland
are hot and dry,
waiting to catch fire
sometime soon.
So am I. We all are.

Mark Blocker

The Deer, The Whore and June

Driving to work
I saw an auburn deer
in a green pasture
nervously looking
around while paused
at a barbed wire fence
separating her from
two deadly lanes of Hwy 101
while behind her the sun
was rapidly brightening.

Easier than witnessing
an emaciated prostitute
in a tattered babydoll
on her last stroll
shielding her blinking
eyes with an unwashed hand
staggering east
across Vermont & El Segundo
into rude daylight.

On both occasions
–200 miles and a year apart–
jacarandas leeched lavender
into an ebbing wall of fog.

Then at school
I attempted to control adolescents who
believe I’m clueless about living,
only offering them useless minutiae
that must die soon while the sun, outside,
is bouncing upon the top
of the classroom.

Mark Blocker

DRINKING RESPONSIBLY

It takes about 4 cocktails:
misting your mind
freshening, cooling overripe
recollections, and applying
some glistening sheen
to your dull ideas
that remain aboard
your sailing head
after you vacate
this run-down day. But 8,
10 won’t help, they’ll just
thicken the cerebellum’s steam
till you can’t see past
the beam of your voice.

The sun has fallen
for now.
Go home.
Eat dinner.
Sleep. Tend
to your
wife & children if
they’re still
around.

Mark Blocker

GOING GREEN IN THIS DIRTY, HOT TOWN

Every morning Monday through Friday
and Saturdays & Sundays too
I buy the LA Times and SLO Tribune
and usually coffee from a convenience store
on the other side of the highway
always exchanging pleasantries
I even know the exact price: $1.86 for the papers,
$3.39 with the coffee (price inexplicably changes sometimes
but I never say anything figuring
it all evens out over time).

Yesterday I rode my bicycle because
the morning was sunny & warm
and I wanted to get some exercise
do something nice for the Earth.
But when I leaned the bike against the doorway
the owner starts bitching at me to put it in the rack.

“No. I need to keep an eye on it.”

“It’s blocking the door, sir.”

“There’s plenty of room.”

He presses the issue. I shrug
shake my head
sigh
then roll it over
to the rack
where now
I have to lock
the god damned
thing up or some son
of a bitch will steal it
while I’m in there
giving away my money.

I straighten up
go inside
grab two papers
plop ’em on the counter
take out my wallet
exhale
and wait.
He gets all buddy-buddy
and offers me a bag.

“I don’t want any bag.”

He smiles “You’re on a bike you need a . . .”

I repeat “Keep your bag.”

He gives me change for the five.

I growl “Thanks, asshole.”

He leaps the counter, chases me out,
barking “For wise man who read two newspaper
everyday and teach school kids YOU BIGGEST ASSHOLE IN WORLD!”

Then he switches tone again,
pleading “I just try to run safe business, here, get sued by drunk men . . .”

I listen to him while unlocking my bike, “yeah, yeah, yeah . . .”
Then I ride off downtown to the local coffee shop where I had to ask
the waitress three times to bring a cup
. . . and some ice water, too.

*        *       *

This morning I drove to 7-11.
With a stiff and twisted gait I went inside.
“You OK?” the kid asked through a sinister, indigo blue goatee and lip ring flecked with rust.

“Yeah, fine. I rode around town yesterday
on my bicycle and now I’m a little sore.”

He frowned, “Yeah? Well, better park that fucker
down in the rack, man. We don’t need another bum or drunk
falling on his ass out there then suing us. Shit.”

Mark Blocker

THE NUT HOUSE/TICKET TRAP AT THE END OF MY BLOCK

It’s lime green stucco with forest green trim
paved over lawn, assorted plastic chairs
set up 20 feet away from the unvarnished front door.

I drive past at 6:30 and 5 week days
more on weekends and ALWAYS
this pudgy fellow wearing hiked up pajamas
and a tucked in dress shirt
is pacing the sidewalk
stepping carefully,
I guess, to avoid
cracks,
pausing
to rub the stubble
on his head,
brow furrowed
staring down
at the puzzle.

Afternoons
two other guys
join him outside,
but they sit
in the sun.
Guy in his 50s
apparently doesn’t give
a shit about anything
he chain smokes generic cigarettes
blowing smoke far across the yard
then he throws his head back, grins,
and waves if you look his way.

It’s a four-way stop at this corner
augmented with deep, chassis-scraping dips.
The city stations a cop nearby, who watches you
stop. Usually he’s parked in the shade
of an oak tree two houses down.

A third resident
with white walls
topped by a graying, brown tuft
sits upright, palms upon his knees,
frowning. His checkered shirt is buttoned
all the way up to his neck.

Today that cop
pulled me over
said he didn’t
see my tires
stop rolling.
He blew
a bubble and cracked
his wad of pink gum
while I pulled out
my license
registration and proof
of insurance.
After about five minutes
he came back and said he
was letting me go
this time.

Mark Blocker